Writer’s Craft #87 Point of View

Ann GimpelAnn Gimpel is a clinical psychologist, with a Jungian bent.  Avocations include mountaineering, skiing, wilderness photography and, of course, writing.  A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago.  Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies and she has published two novels, Psyche’s Prophecy and Psyche’s Search.   Psyche’s Promise, is slated for release during the summer of 2012.  A husband, grown children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out her family.

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What is POV and Why is it so Important?
Quite simply, POV stands for Point of View. For fictional authors, the POV character(s) is whose eyes the story is told through. Though it can be challenging to tell a story this way — because the reader can’t know anything the POV character doesn’t — it provides unparalleled opportunity to build a wonderful, three-dimensional protagonist that readers can bond with.
Characters are what make fiction. Readers take them to heart, live their stories with them and are sad when the book ends. POV is what accomplishes this. It’s an author’s primary vehicle to create effective storybook characters that jump off the page and into a reader’s soul.
Long ago, I was taught you needed a minimum of 5,000 words between POV shifts. In my own writing, I’ve found it most effective to stick with two — or at the most three — POV characters in a hundred thousand word novel. While I haven’t counted words between POV changes, I do try to have shifts between who’s telling the story feel natural. Convenient plot twists tossed on the altar of an author’s desperation to bring a particular outcome to bear stick out like a sore thumb.
How do you handle POV in your writing? What’s worked best for you?


9 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #87 Point of View

  1. Saying you need to go 5000 words between POV switches is like saying a director needs to go 5 minutes between scene cuts. The shorter the story, the faster you can switch POV. Comedy, at least, allows short excursions into the POVs of peripheral characters; you can see this in the writings of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. So does action/adventure – main char POV, cut to POV of the sniper watching the main character for two sentences, back to main character. Very short cuts might be less likely to go into the new POV character’s thoughts, and thus be less disruptive.

  2. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I agree that the “traditional” rules don’t necessarily apply anymore. And some writers are so talented, it almost doesn’t matter what they do, their stories read well and it’s clear whose head you’re in. You named two of them.

    The issue I have is when I pick up a book and the author has obviously never heard of POV, or decided to simply ignore it. After all, correct use of POV is a lot of work. Particularly picking up those slithery POV shifts that like to creep in. If I have to skip back and forth trying to figure out whose head I’m in, the book starts feeling like more work than it’s worth. Maybe I’ve just had bad luck here of late, but it seems like there are a lot of them out there.

  3. I usually use only one POV character through a story. I try to pick someone who has the most at stake or is in the most emotional turmoil. I’m not sure how I feel about the 5000 word rule, but I do agree there has to be some kind of transition to keep the reader from getting lost.

  4. I suppose the 5000 word per POV could be the length of a chapter, which is where a POV shift would be logical … for me, a POV shift happens when the story dictates it. It’s not a matter of word count, but more of a scene change. But then, with the way I write I usually have a number of main characters whose POV’s are integral to the structure of the story arc.

  5. Rules like this 5K restriction make me sigh. These are perhaps useful guidelines for the novice writer who has not yet acquired the skill to know instinctively what works. But they are only vague, general guidelines at best.

    As Widdershins said, a POV shift happens when the story dictates it. Period. And there can be rare occasions when this shift happens within a paragraph or two (or even less).

    Give me a rule, and I’ll show you a great author who effectively and elegantly breaks it.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Interesting how folks glommed onto the 5000 word thing. What I said was, \”long ago I was taught.\” I was taught a bunch of other things, too, that some of my publishers have drummed out of me–or made me alter. Like comma use, for example. I was taught to always put commas before \”too\” and \”either\”. Traditional writers do this. One of my publishers wants them there, another does not. So, I go with the house style guide for each publishing house. After all, they\’re who took my books or stories.
    I do think POV shifts live in a world all their own, outside of comma placement. And, sure, you can have two or three POV shifts in a single paragraph, but all that\’s going to do is confuse the reader. And it makes the narrative choppy.
    Writing is changing along with the publishing industry. Nonetheless, readers haven\’t lost their taste for riveting tales that are skillfully woven. I still believe that POV is one of a writer\’s strongest tools to accomplish that.

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